After years of slow but steady improvement, the air quality in Los Angeles is getting dangerously worse again, and officials are either unable or unwilling to do enough about it. Already this summer, the region has experienced its first smog alert since 1998, as well as 38 days above the federal ozone-safety standard. That compares to 36 days for all of 2001 and 49 days last year, which was the worst year for air quality since 1998.
The region has reached a watershed moment in its elusive quest for healthy air. Starting next week, public hearings will begin on an updated clean-air plan from the South Coast Air Quality Management District. AQMD officials tout their proposal as a good one — and the best that can be achieved given the rules under which they operate. But they express frustration over litigation and industry lobbying that are hampering their efforts. Predictably, industries are chafing under current and proposed smog rules they claim are too strict. Environmentalists, for their part, insist the AQMD could and must do more to head off deteriorating air quality.
As summer’s heat takes hold, so too does smog, this year with a vengeance. Even with a seemingly endless June gloom — which keeps down temperatures and smog — area residents have inhaled unhealthful levels of pollution twice as often as last year, which was no fresh-air vacation. Last year, local smog-control officials blamed hot, stagnant weather and wildfires. Environmental activists point instead to the big picture, warning that greater Los Angeles is now poised for years of worsening air quality, as it adds almost 2 million people this decade, unless public agencies dramatically increase efforts to beat back pollution. “We’ve known for some time that the growth in people and vehicles would catch up with us,” said Bonnie Holmes-Gen, assistant vice president of government relations for the American Lung Association of California in Sacramento. “We cannot rest on our laurels.”
Air pollution remains down considerably from 1993, when lung-searing, eye-tearing ozone exceeded the federal health standard on 124 days in the region. Ozone — a gas that forms when sunlight mixes and reacts with industrial and automotive emissions — irritates the respiratory system and damages the lungs over time. In 2001, it reached its lowest levels since regional air monitoring began. But even this cleaner air is still unhealthful and remains the worst in the nation.
Air pollution already is damaging health and shortening lives, and the harm will worsen as the air gets dirtier, said Dr. John Balmes, professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. “More people with asthma will have attacks, and more elderly people with heart and lung disease will die as a result of that pollution.” Healthy people and children also will suffer from increased respiratory-system irritation and damage, he added.
In its updated plan, the Air Quality Management District outlines new pollution controls for local industries and businesses, including on emissions from the region’s growing freight-shipping industries. The plan also would levy fees on railroads, shipping lines and airlines to finance cleanup of equipment used in freight shipping — such as forklifts, cranes, diesel locomotives and diesel trucks.
But state legislation permitting these fees is bottled up due to intensive industry lobbying. Commercial interests are still fighting rules adopted in 2000 and 2001 — all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. They want to overturn requirements to convert public-transit buses, school buses, public-works trucks and other public vehicles to clean fuels. The Chicago-based Engine Manufacturers Association and the locally based Western States Petroleum Association contend that the federal Clean Air Act pre-empts the AQMD from specifying which fuel vehicles have to burn. A high-court decision is expected in about a year.
Meanwhile, environmentalists insist the AQMD should be doing much more. “For those who have been tracking this for years, it’s shocking that [smog-control officials] would be satisfied with this plan,” said Tim Carmichael, president of the Coalition for Clean Air, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit that advocates for cleaner air. “The progress we’ve made over the last couple decades is definitely in jeopardy.”
For one thing, the proposed plan does not specify how it would achieve federally required standards for ozone by 2010. “There are lots of things the agencies should be doing, but aren’t,” said Gail Ruderman Feuer, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles. The council has joined the Coalition for Clean Air in asking the AQMD to include regulations to clean up emissions from the cranes, yard equipment, and trucks that service the port each day, as well as to require ships to plug into electric power while in port instead of running their engines to make onboard electricity. Emissions from even one giant cargo ship’s engines rival those of an oil refinery.
The environmental groups also are calling on the district to require cleanup of diesel-powered ground equipment used at airports, such as motorized baggage carts, and to demand more emissions reductions from power plants, refineries and other large industries. They say the California Air Resources Board should ban spray cans and require automakers to buy back old, high-polluting cars and scrap them as customers purchase new ones.
A spokesman for the state air board insisted that the agency is moving to tighten regulations on consumer products. And local officials said the future is not as hazy as feared. “I don’t believe the air is going to deteriorate,” said Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the AQMD. “But I think it’s fair to say, if you look over the past four years, that improvement has slowed and is nearing a standstill.”
California’s budget crisis means regulators can provide little financial support for cleanup. Funds are drying up for replacing and retrofitting old diesel school buses, which puff soot and expose students inside to harmful pollution, according to a Coalition for Clean Air report. Bills to place pollution-cleanup bond measures before the voters next year are all but shelved in the midst of the budget debacle.
So as the smog days of August approach, regional and state air-quality officials face tough choices, while residents face a smoky, hazy harbinger of things to come.